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Dirk Nowitzki's Career Deserves Better Ending Than Dallas Mavericks Can Provide

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 22, 2015

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Dirk Nowitzki has given the Dallas Mavericks tens of millions in salary savings, 17 years of impeccable service and one NBA title.

And this is how the franchise plans to repay him? With a roster whose ceiling sits a shade above mediocrity, a pair of lesser teammates with larger pay rates and annual home run hacks at the free-agent market that have yet to deliver even an extra-base hit?

This can't be the final chapter of the future Hall of Famer's basketball story. The Mavs owe so much more to a player who hasn't even walked away from the game yet and already sits atop the organization's all-time ranks.

"Nobody is even close," Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News wrote. "Nowitzki is the face of the franchise, and the team's record book is like his shrine."

Dirk Nowitzki's Lofty Place in the Mavs' Record Books
CategoryStatisticFranchise Rank
Games1,265First
Points28,119First
Rebounds10,051First
Assists3,282Fourth
Steals1,076Second
Blocks1,128Second
Player Efficiency Rating23.3First
Win Shares192.0First
Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The production alone demands a far superior supporting cast than what Dallas has assembled around its once-in-a-lifetime talent.

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Nowitzki is an offensive machine. Seven-footers with legitimate three-point range (career 38.3 percent) are hard enough to stop. But when that same giant can create his own shot off the bounce and toss in fadeaway jumpers that scientists can't even figure out how to stop, he falls into that uber-exclusive company of unguardable scorers.

"You don't even feel comfortable when he shoots it," Sacramento Kings coach George Karl told Grantland's Brett Koremenos in May 2014. "It's like you're calling timeout before the ball releases out of his hand, because you know it's going in."

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 26: Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks shoots a jumper against Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets during Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2015 at the American Airlines
Glenn James/Getty Images

Even at 37 years old, Nowitzki still looks like "Mr. Automatic."

Last season, he was one of only 19 players to average 17-plus points and post at least a 55.0 true shooting percentage. And, as a testament to his historical greatness, it was actually a fairly rough campaign in terms of both scoring and shooting by his standards.

The Mavs should be racing to construct a contender around him. But every time this franchise goes big-game hunting, it fails to hit its target.

After Nowitzki carried the team to the 2011 title—he took home Finals MVP honors after averaging 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds in the series—Dallas opted for financial flexibility over roster continuity. Starters Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson were allowed to walk in free agency, as was spark-plug reserve J.J. Barea.

Jason Kidd and Jason Terry bolted in the 2012 offseason, and Shawn Marion left last summer. In the span of three years, the Mavs had virtually gutted their championship roster outside of Nowitzki.

The Mavs envisioned their road to recovery in notable free-agent signings, with Dallas-area native Deron Williams the first to surface on their radar in 2012. While the three-time All-Star ultimately decided to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets, Nowitzki expressed confidence in Dallas' ability to still leave the summer with something of substance.

"We as the Mavericks, we don't look at ourselves as a rebuilding organization," Nowitzki said in 2012, via Jeff Caplan of ESPN.com. "We always compete at the highest level there is, and so I'm sure if he makes the wrong decision for us, then we've got something else going."

That something else wound up being a slew of players on one-year pacts, virtual placeholders such as Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman. In 2012-13, the Mavs went just 41-41 and missed the playoff party for the first time since 2000.

By season's end, Nowitzki was understandably getting restless.

"I don't want another year next year with the same as this year, [with] the frustration and playing for the eight or nine seed," he said in April 2013, via USA Today's Sam Amick. "... We want to get back to the championship level."

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks receives some treatment  to his leg on the sideline after fouling out against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on November 1, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Mavs' plan for the 2013 summer was the same as the previous one: chase notable names. They set their sights on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard but couldn't reel in either one. They wound up settling for second-tier (or lower) free agents again, striking their "biggest" deals with Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert.

Dallas bumped its victory total to 49 in 2013-14, but it could only manage to secure the West's No. 8 seed. Following its first-round exit, Nowitzki exponentially increased the team's buying power by inking a comically low three-year, $25 million contract—despite having, as sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, "max-level" offers from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers.

"For me, it was about giving some of that back to Mark [Cuban]," Nowitzki explained, via Michael Lee of the Washington Post. "If I would've taken some of that money off the salary cap, it's tough. I wanted to be on a good team my last couple of years."

As Sefko pointed out, Nowitzki's contract taught Mavs fans two things:

First, it reiterates that Nowitzki will do whatever is needed to put the Mavericks in position to improve the team.

... Second, it ensures that the Mavericks can make a competitive offer to Carmelo Anthony this summer—plus guarantees that there will be ample money for a maximum contract to a player such as LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love in the summer of 2015.

Well, the NBA's 2015 summer is essentially over now, and guess who's not in Dallas: Anthony, Aldridge, Love or any other premier player besides Nowitzki.

DeAndre Jordan spurned the Mavs, and they didn't have a viable plan B.

They gave $70 million to Wesley Matthews, a complementary three-and-D wing who's still recovering from a torn Achilles. They traded for 31-year-old center Zaza Pachulia, who's averaged more than 25 minutes only once since 2006-07. They finally lured in Williams, but only after he shot a career-worst 38.7 percent from the field and the Nets spent $27.5 million to make him go away.

They also lost Chandler (again), Ellis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rajon Rondo and Amar'e Stoudemire.

Nowitzki left millions on the table for the Mavs to form a contender. That isn't happening.

"Dallas will instead take a swing at being competitive," SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote. "Even that won't be easy."

Apr 24, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) reacts during the game against the Houston Rockets in game three of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Spor
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas' roster is light on non-Nowitzki talent and overloaded with reclamation projects.

Matthews, whose salary doubles that of Nowitzki, has to prove he can recover from an injury that has wrecked NBA careers before. Chandler Parsons, the team's second-highest-paid player, is coming off knee surgery and may not be ready for training camp. Williams just posted his worst player efficiency rating (15.7) since his rookie year of 2005-06.

Even the best-case scenario for this group is forgettable. The Mavs might be decent. They don't have the top-level talent to push above that standing.

Only one of their projected starters had a top-50 PER among players who logged at least 20 minutes per game last season: Nowitzki. And yet, he's only their third-highest-paid player.

Granted, he welcomed that pay cut, but his motivation for doing so was to help Dallas expand its talent base. Instead, the Mavs wound up spending that money on players who aren't even the 37-year-old's statistical equals.

And those inferior talents might push Nowitzki further down the offensive pecking order. He just attempted his second-fewest field goals since 1999-00 (13.8 per game). That number could keep trending down with Williams, Matthews and Parsons all threatening to take away touches.

Dallas' present is uninspiring, and its future is rife with uncertainty. Parsons, Nowitzki and Williams all hold player options for the 2016-17 campaign. Pachulia is entering the final year of his deal, as is head coach Rick Carlisle.

There might be more reshuffling ahead for the Mavs. Based on these past few offseasons, that might mean more optimistic free-agent pursuits, more ultimately empty courtships and more settling for plans B-Z.

That can't be encouraging for Nowitzki. And the fact he's definitely underpaid and might now be undervalued on a team destined to underperform with respect to his once-ambitious expectations is nothing less than deflating.

Legends aren't supposed to go out like this.

Dirk deserves a better ending. The Mavericks, firsthand witnesses to both his elite skills and selflessness, should know that better than anyone.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.